Real Style: Fear of open spaces

Lofts used to be the height of chic. Then the corporate jocks moved in. Time to pack up says
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In Britain in 1999, You Are Where You Live. And if you live in a loft, you should start worrying, because it's about to go out of fashion.

The first reason is that, while the avant-garde are moving out, corporate jocks are moving in. Even Rupert Murdoch is buying one in New York, greatly upsetting his SoHo neighbours, who protest that lofts should be reserved - and subsidised - for the use of artists.

The second sign of untrendiness is estate agents desperate to tell anyone who will listen how fashionable, even creative, a warehouse will make them seem. Which is very suspect indeed.

A tour of the estate agents of Clerkenwell reveals window displays so pretentious they make Hyacinth Bucket look down-to-earth. One has a carefully lamin-ated quote by David Puttnam: "Cities remain the irresistible destination of all those who insist on being where things are happ-ening". I don't know who's worse: Puttnam for saying it, or the estate agent for having it in the window.

Meanwhile the properties are on offer at prices to make your ears bleed. Back in 1950s New York, according to Marcus Field, editor of design and architecture magazine Blueprint, and co-author of Lofts, (pounds 30, published by Laurence King in May), having a loft used to be the height of rebellion: "It was a subversive, almost political act," he says. "While the establishment was pushing the concept of the ideal lifestyle, with its clapperboard houses, lawns, picket fences, and an American car in the driveway, artists began to rebel against the whole ethos." The same was true, to an extent, in London's East End, as artists quietly got on with it from Whitechapel to Hoxton.

The whole point, says Field, was that lofts were cheap. In New York the tenant would pay $1,000 dollars key money to be let in, and would then live and work there rent free. More recently, in London, what would have fetched pounds 70,000 in the late 80s now goes for upwards of half a million. But the dangerous, Damien Hirst-type glamour that used to be associated with warehouses has gone for good. For what artist other than Damien could afford to live in one?

Field remarks: "Now yuppies are doing it, it suddenly seems like the height of conformity." Toni Rodgers, editor of Elle Decoration, agrees: "Housebuilders are build-ing loft developments in places like Buckinghamshire which look like branches of Tesco. The people I know are moving out of them, not into them. They're starting to have kids and there's nowhere for them to play. Who's going to pay half a million for somewhere where you can't kick a football?"

And now that estate agents have become involved, there is also the inevitable flood of corny adjectives. They will use any excuse to avoid describing a property with such ordinary words as "house" or "flat".

No, they must be called "warehouse apartments" and "loft-style dwellings". Like "Italian-style" desserts in supermarkets, the latter promise only disappointment.

It is also ironic that people buying lofts these days tend to subdivide them into smaller rooms, a gesture which, complains Field, completely defeats the object.

Rodgers adds: "There is such a thing as too big. The first thing people do when they move into a loft is to put the bed on a mezzanine, so they are closer to the ceiling - I think because they like to feel enclosed."

Yet landmarks formerly described as "that shitty factory down by Crack Alley" continue to be rechristened with grand names like: "The Fleur-de- Lys Building - loft-living overlooking Regents Canal". The very phrase "loft-living" is dubious, implying that when you buy a loft you buy a lifestyle, too. The question for today is, which one?

Yes, these days prospective purchasers bear less relation to famous BritArtists and more relation to the bloke out of the old Halifax ad - you remember, the one where the guy wakes up in his sunny loft to `Easy Like Sunday Morning', hugs his cat and goes out to buy a paper, happy as a lark. (This being the ultimate Eighties ad he probably returned to find he had been plunged into negative equity and made redundant.) And in Julie Burchill's new book, Married Alive, the heroine is a loft-living graphic designer, the implication being that this is now the ultimate cliche.

Two years ago I accidentally made the most radically fashionable statement of my life when, along with my partner, I moved out of a loft. Although I admit this was due to practicalities (the lease ran out), and not in protest at the commercialisation of the warehouse scene, leaving was nevertheless a huge relief.

At first, it had been great. The loft had sash windows and wooden floors, and most of all it was huge. The area, just a stone's throw away from the charming Old Street roundabout, was pleasantly quiet at weekends - just the occasional clip-clop of a gaggle of transvestites on their way to the nearby drag club, or the low throb of a black taxi ticking over while the cabbie ate his cheese sandwiches in peace.

Its secluded nature made for some interesting moments, not least the time we looked out of the window one Sunday afternoon to witness, through the front windscreen of a very smart Mercedes family estate, fellatio being performed on the tastefully dressed driver. But it swiftly emerged that there were drawbacks for which no amount of hipness could compensate

For a start, it was too big for ordinary people. Unless you are hurling paint at canvas in the manner of Jackson Pollock, we soon realised you are unlikely to use that amount of space profitably. (I once visited the end of the room and, spotting some tumbleweeds blowing about, recalled that I hadn't walked that far for several months.)

The lack of any other residents and therefore shops meant an unhealthy reliance on the garage for everyday provisions. We almost succumbed to scurvy after two years of living exclusively on Scotch eggs and Boasters.

Another problem was that our upstairs neighbours chose to cash in on their rolling acres by hosting regular pay-to-get-in parties. Funnily enough, the S&M gatherings were rather quiet and civilized, just the sound of a little light thwacking before everyone departed soberly in their cars - well, I suppose you're hardly going to go home on the Tube in a leather mask. But the raves really left their mark on my nerves.

During one particularly arduous techno session, I begged my boyfriend Jo to go upstairs and complain. I later found out that he had hidden outside our front door for ten minutes before coming back in, feigning failure. "There were 1,000 people dancing up there," he said later. "I could hardly go in and ask them to turn the music down."

To be fair, we threw a few parties ourselves. We found that, just as the Queen is obliged to open Buckingham Palace now and again, if you live in a large space you are expected to entertain on a large scale. "Blimey, I had no idea we had so many friends," we'd remark to each other at six in the morning, surveying a mass of 300 revellers pulsating away in our living room. Then we'd realise we didn't. They were all strangers, our real friends having gone home to their lovely, cosy flats.

But the worst aspect, and the final cruncher, was the cold. As Lucy Dunn, deputy editor of lifestyle magazine Living Etc, says: "Lofts are definitely on their way out. People are sick of rattling around and paying enormous heating bills. They want light and space, but find that lofts are too cold and unfriendly."

I agree. Unless you have the constitution of Chris Bonnington, never buy a loft. Our central heating was like a two-bar fire in Wembley Arena. One day, mad with cold, I wept, pleading with Jo to move somewhere normal.

And we did. Now we live in a flat - a nice flat with a fitted carpet so you can watch TV lying on the floor. But what's so great is that we still get to feel superior. After all, we did once live in a loft. But, you know, we're so over that now.

WHAT LOFT-LIVERS NEVER SAY

! `Is it rather warm in here or is it just me?'

! `Let's have a party for little Kevin's sixth birthday and invite his whole class'

! `What I'd do for a Laura Ashley charge card!'

! `I just love homes that look lived in. I can't throw anything away'

! `Anyone fancy a kick-around in the back garden?'

! `This is such a nice, quiet, leafy neighbourhood, and so good for Sainsbury's'

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